The Magazine

Husbands and Wives

What gay marriage won't change.

Aug 2, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 44 • By TOD LINDBERG
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IT IS POSSIBLE that at the end of the day, gay marriage will be an enduring reality, at least in some places. This troubles many people, even as others hold it up as an important element in the recognition of equal human dignity. But how much, really, will be changed by gay marriage? With all due respect, I think both proponents and opponents overstate the likely effects. Gay marriage will neither be especially dangerous to marriage as such, as opponents fear, nor will it usher in equal recognition for gay and lesbian couples, as proponents hope.

Some opponents of gay marriage take their position on the basis that homosexuality as such is morally wrong. This position provides an intellectually consistent grounding for opposition to gay marriage, but it is nowadays rarely the basis of arguments made in the public square. Instead, opponents of gay marriage generally argue that the expansion of the use of the term "marriage" to gay couples as well as the extension to them of the legal and customary rights of married couples will diminish the sanctity of marriage and weaken an institution that is of vital importance to the rearing of succeeding generations. In short, gay marriage will have a bad effect on marriages of the traditional man-woman variety.

That the institution of marriage has changed over the course of a century or so is undeniable, as is the direction of the change: in favor of more freedom for individuals at the price of a less-binding tie. It seems unlikely that we will ever see sufficient political enthusiasm for a return to the laws and mores of marriage 19th-century-style. No, rather, the question is whether the changes will stabilize at a tolerable level or whether we have embarked upon a spiral that will lead to social ruin--and if the latter, whether the spiral will inevitably run its course or whether we can stop it or at least slow it by political action (such as a constitutional amendment).

That there is some sort of downward spiral--that marriage, in general, isn't what it used to be--critics of gay marriage have amply shown. But, in fairness, one must balance that loss against what we got in exchange for our family troubles: namely, greater individual freedom. It seems likely, for example, that women's increasing workforce participation had something to do with the current state of the family, to pick one element of this directional change that seems settled in favor of the greater freedom granted now. And we await a discussion that disentangles gay marriage from other factors contributing to the downward social spiral of the family. That's partly because it's a difficult thing to show. But the difficulty itself ought to serve as a warning flag that we may have trouble with some basic concepts here.

CRITICS OF GAY MARRIAGE regard marriage between a man and a woman as something higher than could ever be represented by a union of two men or two women. For purposes of argument, let us accept the view of the critics. But if man-woman marriage is truly higher, how is it threatened by something lower? If what's lower can cut marriage down to the size of the low, then what is the basis of the claim that marriage of the man-woman sort is higher in the first place? After all, the fact that some marriages are not good marriages across the full panoply of modern dysfunctionality does not mean that no marriages are good marriages (and therefore, presumably, of a higher sort). The higher sort are not undone by the existence of a lower sort.

But one should call things by their proper name, no? Well, yes, but if we cease calling something by its proper name--or rather, start calling something by an improper name--do we change the thing? If, as Lee Harris argues, "marriage" exists not by virtue of a "right" to marry but has in fact been constituted from time immemorial by the union of a man and woman itself, then the true constitution of marriage does not change because the term is applied to two men or two women. A marriage of two men or two women is simply not the same as a marriage between a man and woman, and it does not become the same by virtue of calling it by the same name. A recent review in THE WEEKLY STANDARD by Margaret Boerner noted that English is a language of few synonyms: Most other languages get by with a single term for both a study (where you read) and a studio (where you paint). We could probably get along reasonably well with a single term for male-female union and male-male and female-female union. Gay marriage will remain "gay marriage" even if the term "gay" drops out. Nor will marriage as such need to be classified as "straight" or "heterosexual" when a man and a woman are involved. When people are introduced to a gay married couple, their sense of the social structure underlying the marriage will be quite different from their sense of the social structure uniting a married man and woman. This is not a matter of anti-gay animus but of the reality of social construction.

As much as gay-marriage proponents would like to do so, we are unlikely to be able to devise a complete solution to the problem of making two things the same when they differ in fact. Stubborn language of the sort that is interwoven into the social structure will persist in reflecting people's sense of the reality around them. For example, when my wife, Tina, introduces me to someone, it always closely follows this form: "This is my husband, Tod." And when I introduce Tina, as I did in the previous sentence, it is as "my wife." There is, of course, another term for each of us, and that is "spouse." But I don't think she has ever introduced me as "my spouse." In fact, I do not recall ever having been introduced to someone's "spouse" as such.

The utility of the term "spouse" is chiefly as a generic in relation to a mixed-sex group of people who, say, work together: "Spouses welcome," meaning, those who are married to the members of this particular group are free to attend the event in question. And one can already feel the term "spouse" pushing outward from its original boundaries in the "spouses welcome" phrase. Because if spouses are welcome, chances are you can bring your fiancée--or boyfriend or girlfriend or partner or live-in, as appropriate.

Since the 1970s, the Census Bureau has collected data on cohabitation out of wedlock by counting POSSLQs, Persons of the Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters, in its monthly Current Population Survey. The term is pronounced "possuhl-cue." A reasonable response to this classification scheme is to treat it as ripe for comedy, as the broadcast journalist Charles Osgood did in his 1981 book, There's Nothing That I Wouldn't Do If You Would Be My POSSLQ. Another entry, this time in the "young adult" category of fiction, is Eve Bunting's 1987 Be My POSSLQ, where the point is actually that the young man and woman sharing the living quarters have a relationship that is platonic. It is, in any case, a distinctly unlovely term. But one of the reasons the term is so awkward is that what it's getting at is a complicated thing to describe: an unmarried man and woman who are living together as a couple, meaning that they are involved romantically and in most cases sexually, and intend to continue to do so and be so. Clearly, this is a state of affairs prevalent enough to deserve a status, some acknowledgment of a pattern of social practice--but, I think, not much. POSSLQ will do. At least, that is, until someone raises the inevitable question: What about an unmarried man and man or woman and woman who are living together as a couple, meaning that they are involved romantically and in most cases sexually, and intend to continue to do so and be so?

This, too, is a matter of some complexity for the Census Bureau. Don't we need a classification for the same-sex version of the phenomenon, PSSSLQ (I leave the pronunciation to the reader)? Oddly enough, POSSLQ has its origins in a sense of scandal quite absent from the same-sex variety of cohabitation, in that an unmarried man and woman living together were once thought to be acting disreputably, whereas homosexual couples didn't officially exist, such relations being subsumed under categories such as "lodgers" and "roomers."

The Census 2000 questionnaire asks the householder who completes the form to identify others living there and to choose for each from a list answering the question "How is this person related to Person 1?" One may choose "husband/wife," "natural-born son/daughter," etc., but "if NOT RELATED to Person 1," the choice is "Roomer/boarder," "Housemate/roommate," "Unmarried partner," "Foster child," and "Other nonrelative." From the answer to this question and from the answers to the question of sex, male or female, for each person, the Census Bureau is able to obtain a count of "same-sex unmarried partner households" (allocating same-sex couples who check the "husband/wife" box to this category as well). Fifty-two percent of American households in 2000, or 54.5 million, were maintained by married couples. There were 4.9 million "unmarried-partner households," and of these, 594,000 were "same-sex unmarried partners."

"Unmarried partners" is a status one cannot ignore; it is more, sometimes much more, than nothing. It may, nowadays, come with a benefits package from employers, as well as commonly held property and children. It may entail state-sanctioned "civil union" in some cases. But the vagueness remains. I return to the problem of introductions. On the anecdotal evidence, introductions remain a socially unsettled matter: "my partner" (but couldn't that be a business partner?); "my life-partner" (a bit sententious); "my boyfriend" or "my girlfriend" (but while the former clearly denotes a sexual or romantic relationship in the case of gay men, the latter does not quite do the same job in relation to a lesbian couple, and in both cases, in the sexual context, don't these terms smell a bit of teen spirit?); "my lover" (the spirit has here aged into the Byronic late teens and early twenties); "my live-in" (straightforward enough, though also said of the help). When Tina or I introduced L., who lived with my sister-in-law K. for seven years, it was as "my sister-in-law"; true, there was nothing "in law" about L. and K. But L. took it as an acknowledgment of the seriousness of their relationship, as it was intended. And they were "Aunt K. and Aunt L." to our children, who may or may not have been old enough to understand the relationship between the two. On one hand, "aunt" is easy, since social practice has long had a place for honorary aunts and uncles. On the other hand, Aunt L.'s family status was clearly higher than that of "Uncle J.," my old friend.

And of course it is true that in the case of same-sex couples, but not in the case of man-woman couples, here matters traditionally must end. Marriage has been available to the latter, but the former are stuck with a status that they may (or may not) find unsatisfactory on account of its intrinsic ambiguity and elusiveness. Gay marriage is the proposed solution, the provision of a status available to all equally, straight or gay.

But will that be satisfactory, a real equality? If so, then the difference between a married heterosexual couple and a married gay or lesbian couple would be inconsequential insofar as the marriage is concerned. I'm afraid I don't think that's very likely.

IN THE CASE of gay marriage, what do you call the married people? Perhaps, indeed, "spouses." But there would then seem to be two possibilities. The use of the term in relation to gay marriage might cause "spouse" to acquire a primary association with same-sex coupledom. In that case, we are probably going to need another term for "spouse" in the sense of "spouses welcome." Or "spouse" retains its primarily generic applicability while also becoming a particular term for referring to either of two married men or of two married women in relation to each other.

It's also possible that some married gay men will refer to their "husbands" and that married lesbians will refer to their "wives." But what about the man or woman who is doing the referring in those two cases? Will the man referring to his husband consider himself his husband's "wife," or the woman referring to her wife consider herself a "husband"? It seems highly unlikely. (I mean this outside the context of camp, where such usages have long had currency.) Much more likely is that we will have a gay marriage consisting of either two husbands or two wives, or two spouses, in the very real and concrete sense that this is how each member of the couple will introduce the other.

Consider, for example, the famous consciousness-raising children's book Heather Has Two Mommies. Well, indeed she does--but what Heather does not have and is never going to have is a mommy and a daddy who are both women. There may (or may not) be roles typically associated with "mommy" or "daddy" assigned respectively to each of the two mommies. But even in the highly implausible case of the superimposition of a Father Knows Best-style division of family labor--Mommy 1 stays home, does the cooking and cleaning, takes care of Heather; Mommy 2 is the sole breadwinner, goes to the office every morning, gets home in time to read Heather a bedtime story before tucking her in for the night--Mommy 2 is nevertheless not "Daddy."

And I think this is true even in the case of some totalitarian-style language reform according to which either (a) a child, whether being raised by a same-sex or mixed-sex couple, is forbidden to use the terms "mommy" and "daddy" and must refer to each parent only by name; or (b) same-sex parents are required to assign themselves, one each, the title "mommy" or "daddy" and stick to it. (In the interests of avoiding stereotyping, you would probably also have to insist that opposite-sex parents classify themselves as "mommy" and "daddy" randomly, without regard to sex.)

In either case, the linguistic scenarios would have to contend with and would be understood only in the context of a shared social reality in which most children continue to be raised by a unit formerly known as a mommy, a woman, and a unit formerly known as a daddy, a man. The revolution required to excise this aspect of social reality from our shared experience would have to be truly comprehensive: I think it would entail the complete severing of child-rearing from marriage, perhaps à la Plato's Republic, or the mandate that there be equal numbers of same-sex marriages and male-female marriages, with children issuing from each category in equal numbers.

As with "mommy and daddy," so with "husband and wife." We may have gay marriage. But neither two married men nor two married women will ever be "husband and wife"--whereas a married man and woman will always be husband and wife. The language is not arbitrary. It is an indicator, once again, of a rather robust social reality. The extension of the term "marriage" to include same-sex unions may produce a certain formal equality. But that does not mean that marriage is the same whether between a man and a woman or between two men or two women. The extension of the legal status does not erase and in fact reveals an underlying difference, one that is going to continue to be marked by the language we speak and the way we live.

Contributing editor Tod Lindberg is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and editor of Policy Review.